August 01, 2003

Workshop Drama

Fantasy writer Gene Wolfe taught a writer's workshop and some of his students complained that he was mean. (This means he didn't pat them on the head and treat them like grade-schoolers, but actually tried to teach them something about writing.)

So Gene up and left the workshop, and Harlan Ellison is furious.

[T]his brouhaha with Gene is unconscionable. Jeanne should not have let him leave, should not have let the little gargoyles take command of the asylum. That Gene opted to do so, to spare Jeanne any embarrassment or hard choices, is further testament to his chivalry and decency. I would have dragged the little fuckers out of their mosquito-infested nests at midnight and browbeaten them into a gelatinous gestalt that understood a GOOD workshop is not one that lets you indulge your delicate amateur umbrages, but one that slaps you around, treats you like an adult, honors what potential you have, gives you your money's worth, does not play to your country-hick paranoias and uneducated ruminations/mythology about what it takes to be a professional, gives you a sense of what true (and truly talented) professionals think of your self-aggrandizing amateur efforts.

This is infamous. I'm calling Gene posthaste. Spread the word; get the straight stuff out there, on website, on Odyssey site, to the newszines.

Consider it done, Harlan.

I've been to lots of workshops, in and out of college. Most university workshops are worse than useless, and I learned just about everything I know about writing from teachers who crucified me when I deserved it, which, when I was first starting out, was every time I wrote anything.

The walls needed to be hosed off when they were through with me. And I love them for it.

Now that I have a Comments section on my blog it will probably start happening again...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 1, 2003 12:24 AM

God, I love reading Harlan when he's on his game.

Posted by: Moe Lane at August 1, 2003 05:48 AM

"Gelatinous gestalt!" Now that's a classic!

Posted by: Hovig John Heghinian at August 1, 2003 06:58 AM

Ellison is great when he's vituperative. But he is also very fair. Go read the update (it's on his site:, posted on Saturday, July 26 2003), where he reports the full story about what happened to Wolfe. Apparently it was far less horrific than it initially sounded, thank goodness.

Posted by: Jay Allman at August 1, 2003 08:00 AM

The best Harlan story I ever heard was told to me by Dick Lupoff who was there.

At some sci-fi convention, and they are legion, a group of veteran SF writers (Lupoff among them) were at a large party and busy observing a new SF writer, one who had just published his first book, regale a small crowd of Fans with a series of self-serving anecdotes and other loud and obnoxious statements, jokes, quotes, and brilliant strokes.

One of the vets turned to his group and said, 'You know, that guy reminds me of a young Harlan Ellison."

"You're right," said another. "Let's kill him now."

Posted by: Van der Leun at August 1, 2003 09:53 AM

Whenever I hear the song "Forever Young," I don't think of Bob Dylan, I think of Harlan (with all that entails).

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at August 1, 2003 11:44 AM

A true appreciation for a really good workshop takes a degree of masochism.

God, I miss workshopping!

Posted by: grs at August 1, 2003 02:31 PM

Just as FYI, Harlan Ellison followed up with a clarification that the issue was primarily with a single student who chose himself to speak for all the other students in confronting Gene Wolfe before class started.

While they were exchanging words, a significant group of the other students decided to stay out of the classroom so as not to embarrass anyone. This appeared to add weight to the single student's claim to speak for everyone in the class, since only a small group was in the room and it appeared that the others had, indeed, walked out.

This prompted Mr. Wolfe to pack up and leave. Makes sense to me.

Evidentally the largest group of students was horrified by what transpired and Harlan's conclusion was "In this matter, I now believe, there are no Villians; there are only Victims. The linchpin of the matter, however, is that some are more Victim than others."

After reading some of the students sites, I don't know that there wasn't a little ass covering going on by some of the students who realized this situation could be extremely BAD for a certain someone's personal career hopes (go figure).

Interesting reading at his website Unca Harlan's Art Deco Dining Pavilion - if you read his post regarding use of pseudonyms on his message board, you will find the answer to the question "What would it be like to get thrashed on the internet by Harlan Ellison?" Personally, not an experience I am really interested in pursuing.

His comments re: the workshop can be found by searching for his message dated "Saturday, July 26 2003 15:43:5" entitled "THE GENE WOLFE BROUHAHA --- AN INFORMED FOLLOW-UP"

Posted by: Marko at August 1, 2003 03:40 PM

Evidentally = contraction of phrase "evidently and eventually"

Yeah, I planned that. Really.

Posted by: Marko at August 1, 2003 03:45 PM

Works for me, but I thought you were talking about evidence derived from dental records.

Posted by: Van der Leun at August 2, 2003 02:42 PM

I've never been a tremendous fan of Harlan Ellison's work, but I did read his "Informed Followup". Obviously the only people who can comment on the situation with Mr. Wolfe are the people who were actually involved.

But the bulk of Harlan's words were directed at writers' workshops in general. Words which I think it would be good for aspiring writers to read, and with which I wholeheartedly agree.

What we're dealing with is a generation afflicted with squeamishness about hurting people's feelings, who now raise a generation that has been unprepared for failure (or even simple mediocrity). The problem with self-esteem is that Real Life inevitably intrudes.

People are inherently good and special; let that be enough. It isn't necessary to lie about how hard life can be, or to remind people of their limitations, or to warn people that you have a 90% chance of not being in the top 10%. And that none of those facts need be an obstacle to happiness.

Posted by: Rob at August 2, 2003 04:41 PM

Best Ellison anecdote ever:

Larry Shaw died on April 1, 1985 and the Nebula Awards were to be given out a month later in New York. The Nebula, sponsored by the Science Fiction Writers Association of America, is one of the two major awards given in the field, and although Ellison was no longer a member of that organization he knew that Charles Platt was going to be at the festivities. Ellison flew to New York for the express and stated purpose of punching Charles Platt in the nose. Ellison sidled up to the bar at the Pennsylvania Hotel (some say The Warwick) and told several people, including writer Jerry Pournelle, that he was there "to punch the shit out of Charles Platt." Pournelle told Platt who was at a reception in an upper room at the hotel. Shortly thereafter, Ellison went upstairs as well.

What followed has been widely reported, variously recounted, the silly stuff of celebrity myth. Not quite the draw card that Vidal vs. Mailer was twenty years ago, but certainly this is a literary myth with legs. Just as certainly the notorious version that Ellison told at Comicfest was exaggerated in the extreme and played for laughs. Platt has told a few variations of the story himself, the common thread of which center around his Gandhi-like non-aggression. Platt maintains that he chose to sit passively on the floor in silent protest the moment after Ellison decked him. This sounds suspiciously like the fighting optimist who revealed that his strategy was to slam his face as many times as possible against his opponents fist.

Ellison approached Platt who was apparently just outside a doorway in the hospitality suite. Platt reportedly said, "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people," at which point Ellison exclaimed, "This is for Larry Shaw, motherfucker, who's dead!" and got off one clean shot to the jaw.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at August 6, 2003 04:57 PM


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